Setting the facts straight on Nebraska’s opportunity scholarships
Nebraska’s Opportunity Scholarships Act program, enacted in LB 753, creates a pathway for Nebraska students to learn and thrive in the education environment that suits them best. The program provides $25 million per year for roughly 5,000 students to enroll in a private school rather than a public school.
Nebraska’s school choice program is funded by a tax credit, and can grow through the current decade if enough students use the program. Lower income students have priority for the program, in which eligibility is based upon the federal poverty level.
Opponents of school choice are pushing a voter referendum to repeal the new law. And they are pushing myths as the basis of their attacks upon school choice. Those myths are explored and dispelled below.
Myth #1: School choice defunds public schools
Perhaps the most common complaint about school choice is that it defunds public schools. Not only is this claim demonstrably false, but the opposite is actually true. School choice results in schools being double-funded per student who opts out.
First, in Nebraska’s particular situation, the Legislature increased public school funding by $300 million and furthermore created a $1 billion education future fund. So the direct fact is that public school funding is going up dramatically in Nebraska.
Second, even if public school funding stayed flat, public school per-capita funding would go up because the public schools would be responsible for fewer students. Nebraska’s opportunity scholarship will fund 5,000 students to pursue an education outside the standardized public school system. That is 5,000 fewer students for the public schools to educate, yet they continue to receive property tax funding from the families that don’t use public schools, and they continue to receive state education appropriations.
In short, school choice increases per-capita funding for public schools even if state funding for public education isn’t going up. And yet state and local funding for public schools is going up in Nebraska.
Myth #2: Public schools become strongest without competition
Those opposed to school choice claim that preventing educational freedom keeps public schools strong. The president of the Nebraska State Education Association claims that “Nebraskans support their public schools and want to keep them strong.”
School choice provides the necessary competition to make public schools stronger. Competition incentivizes public schools to innovate and improve in order to ensure that students and their families are delighted with their educational success. In fact, insulated public schools from meaningful competition will make it less likely that they adapt, improve, and grow stronger.
No business becomes strongest by avoiding all competition. The same is true in education. Competition for students would result in both public and private schools improving.
Myth #3: School choice harms those left behind
Still another complaint is that school choice harms those who are left behind in public schools. Once again, this claim is false.
First, the premise of this claim is flawed. Certainly, students should not all be stuck in failing schools, and so some students finding better education options is better than no students finding an alternative.
Second, and as laid out above, students left behind in public schools have more funding per student than would be the case if there was no school choice. The public schools continue to receive state and local funding for students that no longer go to the school.
In addition, competition from private schools will force public schools to adapt and compete. The most likely outcome is that both public and private schools improve.
Finally, any student left in a school that continues to deteriorate should have the option to leave for a better school. A growing school choice program can allow them to do that, and greater demand for private schools will lead to the creation of more schools to provide for families in the worst school districts.
Myth #4: School choice is a benefit for the rich
Rich families already have school choice. They can pay to send their children to private schools. In fact, Nebraska’s legislation targets lower-income families. Scholarship eligibility is based upon a student’s gross family income as compared to the federal poverty level, and priority is given to students from families below the federal poverty level.
School choice is not a benefit for the rich, it is an equalizer for lower income families.
Myth #5: Nebraska became an outlier by enacting school choice
Finally, opponents of school choice claim that Nebraska is an outlier for enacting a school choice law. In fact, Nebraska would be an outlier if it failed to create a school choice program.
Roughly half of states now have a school choice program, defined as a program that provides enough support to parents to choose an alternative school including religious schools. And in addition, a strong majority of states governed by Republicans have a school choice program. States are increasingly turning to universal school choice through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa, Florida, Utah, and West Virginia have such universal programs.
School choice levels the playing field for educational opportunity. And it also threatens the monopoly public school system. In order for school choice to win the day, false myths must be discarded in favor of the reality of more opportunity for everyone.